WASAUKSING FIRST NATION – Tobias McQuabbie was at home on Shawanaga First Nation with his toddler daughter when there was a knock on the door Tuesday morning.
Residents allowed to return home Wednesday.
Tobias McQuabbie, with his wife Aaron Leonard, holding their daughter Urijah, and dog Puck, were evacuated to Wasauksing Tuesday.
Sarah Bissonette/Beacon Star
The community member on the other side told him there was a brush fire and everyone was being evacuated.
When her husband Tobias called to tell her he was fleeing the house, Aaron Leonard was at work in Parry Sound.
Tobias had 10 minutes to grab some belongings before he had to leave the home.
“I told him I would get there as soon as I could. I got stopped at Village Road by (Anishnabek Police Service) but at that time one of the community members was bringing them out to the road to me anyways,” she said. “He grabbed a diaper bag, our dog, some warm clothes and that was it.”
The reunited family went to the Wasauksing Community Complex where evacuees signed in, were fed lunch, and offered counseling and community support while waiting for news.
In all, more than 120 people left the village within 45 minutes of the evacuation order.
Just after 10 a.m. Tuesday those at the band office learned a house at the north of Shebeshekong Road was on fire. That fire quickly turned into a 1.5-hectare brush fire.
With a tinder dry bush with only four millimetres of rain as of Tuesday, well below the average July rainfall of more than 80 mm.
The flames spread quickly toward the community were propane tanks sit behind homes, and there were concern it could engulf a nearby gas station at the intersection of Highway 69.
With that, officials quickly called for a community-wide evacuation, sending residents to Wasauksing First Nation.
“The community came together,” said head councillor Adam Pawis. “There were people who had been on the fire department before, (those) currently only the fire department and just average everyday people, as well as administrative staff, staff from the healing centre, staff from the school, our consultation staff, every hand that could help out was defiantly there.”
Community members volunteered to drive their neighbours to safety and the community bus and vans were used. Others assisted the Anishnabek Police Service, checking homes.
“And then there was a small group of concerned citizens that went around and collected all the dogs,” he said. “It was absolutely wonderful to see the unity that was involved in this tragedy.”
Along with the Shawanaga First Nation fire department, those from Wasauksing First Nation, Carling Township, and the Pointe Au Baril Emergency Response team all responded. The Ministry of Natural Resources sent in two water bombers, a helicopter with a fire crew and two more fire crews with a fire engine and truck.
The road to the community was reopened mid-day Wednesday and residents were allowed to return with the stipulation they remain “on high alert,” according to a press release from the First Nation. The Ontario Fire Marshal’s office was at the scene investigating the blaze.
Some residents did return home Wednesday and some zipped in to gather more supplies before leaving again.
Pawis said there would be an increased police presence that night to ensure the safety of vacated homes.
The fire was contained but still burning more than 24 hours after it started.
Judy Greenwood-Speers, executive director of the Shawanaga First Nation Healing Centre, was one of those at the Wasauksing Community Complex Tuesday afternoon, along with her co-worker Louise Spend Mohamed, aboriginal mental health worker.
The women and other staff started cooking for firefighters that morning when news of the house fire came through, but that quickly changed to preparing food for evacuees.
“Before we left Shawanaga we literally raided our freezer and started cooking and brought it so by the time our supply was pretty much exhausted Wasausksing had there’s on the go,” said Greenwood-Speers. “And now we’re getting organized to get medications for anybody who let without any.”
Wasauksing First Nation sent up its fire equipment when the fire first broke out, then moved onto tables and chairs and meals and organizing cots at the community complex for Shawanaga residents to potentially spend night.
“A lot of us are relations too, so family members and others can be housed in the community,” said Wasauksing Chief Robert Tabobondung.
Residents were also put up in hotels paid for by Shawanaga, said Pawis.
The first evacuees arrived at Wasausksing around 11:30 a.m. and a few hours later about 80 people were there, while others had found other places to go.
This isn’t the first time Shawanaga residents have been evacuated. In February 2003 a CP Rail train carrying dangerous goods derailed, with three cars leaking their contents.
In that instance, the community was evacuated to the Pointe Au Baril Community Centre.
In the mid-1990s another chemical spill along the rail line had community members evacuated, with many staying in area hotels, recalled Wasauksing band councillor John Beaucage.